Rivers and salmon are an easy linkage to understand—no water, no salmon. However, what we now know is that some orcas—specifically the Southern Resident orcas of Puget Sound and the Pacific coast—are directly linked to salmon for survival. The connections between wild Pacific salmon, endangered orcas (also known as killer whales), and a great western river make a compelling case for changing how we think about the oceans, rivers, and the creatures that inhabit them. We’ll look at this more closely later in this blog, but right now, everyone who cares about healthy orcas, oceans, and sustainable fisheries should urge President Obama to remove the four dams on the lower Snake River.

L91 and L122 photo credit Monika Wieland
L91 and L122 photo credit Monika Wieland

Here’s Why

The Snake River, with its headwaters in the Rocky Mountains of western Wyoming, flows 1,078 miles to the Columbia River, which is the largest North American river that empties into the Pacific Ocean. The Columbia, the Snake, and their many tributaries once supported 10 to 16 million salmon and steelhead each year on their return from the Pacific Ocean to spawn in their natal streams.

Pacific salmon are truly amazing fish. They are born in freshwater streams and lakes— some hundreds of miles inland—and in the case of the Snake River, as far west as Idaho. Yet these fish are also ocean species. As they grow they travel the course of their native river to the Pacific Ocean, where they spend the majority of their adult lives feeding and maturing, and preparing to make the long journey back to their home stream to spawn and then and then die.

Salmon and steelhead are vital to numerous Native American cultures. For many tribes in the region, salmon have been a primary food source for thousands of years. But they are more than food to many people. The Columbia-Inter River Tribal Fish Commission writes “without salmon returning to our rivers and streams, we would cease to be Indian people.”

The importance of salmon to commercial and recreational fisheries, as well as many families and communities on the West Coast, is indisputable. But wild salmon and steelhead populations are now drastically depleted from their former abundance. Today there are 28 threatened and endangered salmon populations on the western coast of the United States. Thirteen of these populations spawn in the Columbia River and its tributaries. Of those, four are from the Snake River: fall Chinook (threatened), spring/summer Chinook (threatened), sockeye (endangered) and steelhead (threatened). And with large portions of the Columbia and Snake rivers now impassible to fish due to dams, just over half of the wild salmon populations in the Columbia River basin are already extinct. It is estimated that thirty-seven genetically distinct species of salmon have been lost forever.[i]

Major dams on the Columbia River, Snake River and main tributaries, highlighting the lower Snake River dams and dams that do not allow fish passage. Adapted from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Major dams on the Columbia River, Snake River and main tributaries, highlighting the lower Snake River dams and dams that do not allow fish passage. Adapted from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.


On average, there is a major dam every 72  miles in the Columbia River Basin. The upper stretches of the Columbia and the Snake rivers are impassible at the Chief Joseph and Hells Canyon dams, respectively. But salmon can navigate past some other dams.

Four federal dams managed by the Army Corps of Engineers on the lower Snake are built with fish ladders for returning adult salmon, but out-migrating juveniles (smolts) have a very difficult time getting to the ocean. What’s more, the physical features of dams, such as turbines and sluiceways, directly kill both adult and juvenile salmon. And this summer, unusually warm waters, especially in the slackwater behind dams, are killing thousands of salmon returning to the Columbia Basin.

What About the Orcas?

The Southern Resident killer whales are actually a large family or clan of orcas made up of three different “pods.” These pods lives in the Salish Sea and Puget Sound off Washington State during the spring and summer months. Orcas are able to use echolocation to detect different salmon species and focus on their preferred prey.   What scientists are learning is that these Southern Resident orcas prefer Chinook (king) salmon; Chinook salmon are 75-90 percent of the orcas’ summer diet.

The National Marine Fisheries Service listed the Southern Resident killer whale as endangered in 2005. There are now only about 81 orcas  remaining, and the lack of adequate preferred prey—Chinook salmon—is one of the biggest threats to their survival and recovery. Scientists have linked the survival and birth rates of the orcas with the coast-wide availability of Chinook salmon.[ii] When orcas are feeding in the Salish Sea in summer months, they depend heavily on Chinook bound for British Columbia’s Fraser River. New scientific studies show that in the late fall and winter months, two of the three orca pods spend a significant amount of time feeding off the outer wester coast of the United States, as far south as Monterey, California. What’s more, these two pods spend a substantial amount of their time feeding near the mouth of the Columbia River.[iii] What are they doing there? They are feeding on salmon returning to the Columbia and Snake River systems.

Rebuilding Chinook salmon populations is the most important thing we can do to help endangered orcas recover. The National Marine Fisheries Service has determined that the lack of adequate prey for Southern Resident killer whales “will require a long-term commitment to rebuilding and enhancing salmon stocks.”[iv] The federal government, however, has been reluctant to make what is arguably the most important conservation commitment—decommissioning the lower four Snake River dams.

Removing those four dams would restore salmon’s access to thousands of miles of river and streams and would produce hundreds of thousands more Chinook that would help Southern Resident killer whales survive and rebuild their population. In fact, removing these four dams may be the single biggest action that the United States  can take to increase salmon abundance in the region, prevent future salmon population extinctions, and help orcas recover.

Some argue these dams are vital to the region’s hydroelectric power supply and shipping. Yet the four dams on the lower Snake River provide only 1 to 4  percent of the region’s power, depending on the time of year. These dams are increasingly expensive to maintain, and their shipping and power benefits can and are being offset by highway and rail transportation, wind and solar energy development, and additional investments in energy efficiency. According to Jim Waddell, a retired 35-year career U.S. Army Corps of Engineers civil engineer:

“The American people can no longer afford these dams, whether their costs are measured in dollars or fish, lost opportunity or continued environmental damage. The construction of these four  dams has been a mistake, and at some point they will be breached. The longer the time before restoring this river to its natural flow, the greater the cost to the American taxpayer.”[v]

The Endangered Species Coalition is not the first to come to the conclusion that these dams must go to recover salmon and orcas. We are partnering with Save our Wild Salmon Coalition and a growing Orca-Salmon Alliance dedicated to recovering wild salmon and orcas populations:( https://www.orcasalmonalliance.org) –

Please join the Endangered Species Coalition and our partners and call on President Obama to remove four dams on the lower Snake River. Click here to sign the petition.


[i] Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission and the Oregon Fisheries Congress. 1997. https://www.psmfc.org/habitat/salmondam.html

[ii] Ward, E.J., E.E. Holmes, and K.C. Balcomb. 2009. Quantifying the effects of prey abundance on killer whale reproduction. Journal of Applied Ecology 46, 632-640.

[iii] Hansen, B. 2015. Distribution and Diet of Southern Resident Killer Whales. NOAA Fisheries Northwest Fisheries Science Center. July 28, 2015 Program Review. Accessed at: https://swfsc.noaa.gov/uploadedFiles/Events/Meetings/MMT_2015/Presentations/3.1%20PPT%20ProgramReviewSRKWDistributionDiet071515MBHv2.pdf

[iv] NOAA Fisheries. 2014. 10 Years of Research and Conservation. Southern Resident Killer Whales. NOAA. NWFSC. Accessed at, https://www.nwfsc.noaa.gov/news/features/killer_whale_report/

[v] Waddel, J. 2014. Comments to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Waterway Users Advisory Board at their meeting of August 14, 2014 in Walla Walla, Washington. Accessed at: https://snakeriverwaterkeeper.org/snwk/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/Jim-Waddell-IWUB-comments-8-14-14.pdf

Stay Informed!

3 comments on “Orcas, Salmon and Rivers – A Life Giving Linkage

    1. Thanks, Gladys, and we’re doing all we can to help them to a more sufficient food source – salmon. I work with a good group of people in the Seattle area who are dedicated to the Southern Resident Orcas. We have a coming event at the Seattle aquarium next Wednesday, October 7th. Here’s a link to that event in case you live close enough to attend: https://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2175915
      Mark Rockwell
      West Coast Representative,
      Endangered Species Coalition

  1. Thanks, Gladys, and we doing all we can to help Orcas and other whales as well. Our efforts are focused on the Puget Sound area, and the Southern Resident Orcas, who travel all the way to Monterey in California. We appreciate your support!

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